For some reason, after all the noise during the 2006 election year, the immigration debate has taken a vacation. This could be a good thing; without the political posturing, the nation’s leaders might be able to accomplish something. But we need some sort of new vision; a major paradigm shift to break the logjam.
I was presented such a vision from an unlikely source. I learned about it from a friend who also happens to be my church file leader. His father, Alton Griffin of Farr West, a World War II veteran and a respected businessman and church leader, received this epiphany last year, and with the help of his sons, had refined it into a position document. I received a copy of this document recently and was able to study it.
Before we go into that, we need to confront some honest facts and dispel some myths about immigration in America:
Myth #1: We can’t solve America’s immigration problems until we first secure our borders.
Fact: Here’s the little secret everyone in Washington understands but won’t admit: We will never be able to completely secure America’s borders. The “lower 48” has over 5000 miles of land borders and over 5000 miles of ocean coastline. It is a physical impossibility to fence or patrol that much border. Whether we’re talking about keeping immigrants or terrorists out, it simply can’t be done. Even the fence that Congress finally came up with after a year of wrangling only spans 1/3 of the Mexican land border; Canada’s border is left open. Another fact: almost half of the illegal immigrants in America didn’t sneak in over the Mexican border; they came here legally and overstayed their visas – which is how the 9/11 terrorists got in.
Myth #2: Illegal immigrants are stealing American jobs.
Fact: The national unemployment rate is 4.5%. In Utah, it’s 2.6%. Just who, exactly, had their job stolen by an illegal immigrant? There is currently a shortage of workers in Utah. Economists and business leaders will tell you that Utah’s economy would have tanked unless the illegal immigrant workforce had been there to take up the slack. If it were possible to immediately remove the entire illegal workforce in Utah, within a week most of the fresh produce, meat and dairy products would be gone from the grocer’s shelves. Construction would come to a halt. Most hotels and restaurants would shut down. I could go on.
Myth #3: Illegal immigrants and those that employ them are lawbreakers and must be punished.
Fact: Technically, yes. The same way that you and I break the law when we drive eight miles an hour over the speed limit. Why do we do that? Because everyone knows the government does not enforce the law unless you’re 10 mph over the limit. When the law is so messed up it is unenforceable, the lawgivers must be blamed rather than the lawbreakers.
I spoke with a dairy farmer last year who tried to do things the legal way. He applied to the government to get legal immigrants to work on his farm. After a year of red tape and getting absolutely nowhere with the government, he faced a decision: Do I continue to obey the law, or do I allow my farm to fail? Shame on Congress for forcing a good man to make that decision. There are a few bad apples among employers, like every other group, but most are good citizens providing jobs and services to our community and want to follow the law. Why do they deserve to be punished for a system that is broken?
Here are a few cold, hard facts: The only way to solve the illegal immigrant problem is to find a workable method to regulate how they are employed. There are anywhere from 10-20 million undocumented workers in America today, and despite the bluster from certain factions, the nation does not have the ability to find and round up all those people onto cattle cars and ship them home. (Only about 55% of illegal immigrants are from Mexico, so we can’t exactly dump them all off in Tijuana.) Thankfully, nor do we possess the Nazi-like cruelty it would require to commit such an act. It would cause untold disruption to our economy, not to mention the lives of millions of innocent children. Despite the bluster, the vast majority of these people will have to be turned into registered temporary guest workers to get a handle on the current situation. Any solution that doesn’t deal with the problem without ripping apart millions of families – which Americans will never tolerate – and damaging our economy is based on fantasy.
Now, back to the epiphany from my good friend Alton. During World War II, the federal government delegated the task of manning our armed forces to state and local draft boards, which had a great deal of latitude in performing their tasks. Using World War II draft boards as a pattern, Alton's idea is to create State and County Immigration Boards to find and register temporary guest workers and those that employ them, as directed by the governor and the legislature. This would bring the administration of worker registration to the “grass roots” level – where the employers are and where the immigrants live and work. These county boards would issue high-tech ID cards, administer local databases of workers and employers, and verify compliance with state mandates. Compliance and cooperation would be much greater compared with working through a federal bureaucracy taking orders from Washington.
With a high compliance rate created by the trust and local knowledge of these county boards, immigrants could be identified and proper taxes could be collected to support the social services required by these temporary guest workers. Those with no jobs would not be issued ID cards, and with high employer compliance stemming from local administration, those who have not been registered could not find work and would leave. Bringing honest families out in the open would also make it easier to identify criminal elements among the immigrants, allowing them to be arrested and deported.
The above is just a broad brush summary of the concept; there are obviously details to work out. These locally registered temporary guest workers would have no guarantees of permanent citizenship or residence; that would have to be earned, and it would be unfair to move them ahead of foreign citizens who have remained in their native countries while working for permanent visas. Given this, an honest appraisal of our current situation leads one to admit that it would be better for all concerned to bring these families out from the shadows.
For all of you who criticize undocumented workers as lawbreakers, I have a question. If you faced the choice of staying in the shadows or seeing your children starve, which would you choose? We will never find them all unless we create an environment where they will voluntarily come into the open. As long as these families are here, we need to bring them into the sunshine, make sure they are protected by our laws, and ensure they and their employers are paying their fair share in support of the community services they use.